At some point in my early to midtwenties, I came to the conclusion that life is not about rock climbing. There’s just too much other crazy shit happening every day on this beautiful clump of space dust. The older I get, however, the more I realize that climbing is most certainly about life. At the risk of sounding overly philosophical about it all, for me, a demanding multi-pitch route feels like a microcosm of life itself (a concept that others have explored long before I ever brought it up). A lengthy alpine or big wall route is an encapsulated experience filled with an array of emotions, from joy to pain, and suffering to elation, which has the ability to bring to the forefront feelings that shape how I view the world well after the summit has been reached.
by Vic Zeilman, Senior Contributor. The full version of this piece is published in The Climbing Zine, Volume 10.
We are all on some sort of path in life, and the future is ultimately unknown. And just like that greater path, the events of any given climb can never be foreseen until you’re right in the middle of it all. Committing can feel scary, and making decisions along the way can be stressful. Sometimes you have to put your trust in your partner or teammates to make it through some sort of impasse, and sometimes success or failure rides solely on your abilities alone. But either way, once you begin, it’s all action and reaction, cause and effect. Up or down, you keep moving, evaluate your options, weigh the risks, listen to your instincts, and in the end, you make the choices that will determine if and when you complete your objective.
Sometimes the obstacles are known, but oftentimes they’re not. Each pitch takes you to a different vantage point, and each rope length marks your progress, like months in a year, or years in a decade. Like many before me, rock climbing has provided valuable life lessons about setting goals, being prepared, adapting to adversity, and of course, all that cliché motivational poster stuff about teamwork—except the team is small, and the consequences can be huge. In climbing, as in life, sometimes things just don’t feel right. Pressures build, fear creeps in, motivation ebbs and flows, and there are difficulties at times for no apparent reason. It is often in these moments I feel the strongest urge to simply unplug, or at least turn down the volume, step away from the crowds, and go it alone for a while.
Everyone has their coping mechanism. For me, I have learned that solitude can be a powerful rejuvenator of the soul and a catalyst for truly appreciating the relationships that matter most in my life. As much as I enjoy the company of family and friends, there are times when I prefer individual pursuits—a lengthy trail run, a ski tour at dawn, even sitting behind the wheel on a long road trip—time to reflect on my existence in this world, and to let my own thoughts speak louder than the white noise that engulfs our culture.
Ranked highest amongst these individual pursuits is solo climbing. Not free soloing, but rather rope soloing. This is usually aid climbing, and if I’m feeling particularly masochistic, multiple days of it in a row. Slow, laborious, unnecessarily terrifying, completely exhausting, but surreal and meditative, like spending a weekend getting your ass kicked in a Buddhist monastery. I have joked with friends over the years that aid climbing is only good for three things: climbing El Capitan, summiting obscure desert towers, and going on vertical camping trips by yourself.
Let’s face it; aid climbing is a dying concept these days. When I was first introduced to rock climbing, being a “climber” meant focusing on the holy trinity of skills: trad, ice, and aid. Aid climbers still got cover shots in all the mags. Things have changed though. I mean, who even knows how to effectively rate an aid route anymore? It’s a lost art, like reading Latin, or making a sweet mixtape for your middle school girlfriend using only the record button on your stereo and a handful of radio stations. That said, soloing a big wall definitely has its attractive qualities. It’s a lot more satisfying than most people give it credit for.
Unlike climbing a wall with a partner, you are not forced to hang at an uncomfortable stance (or lack thereof), chain-smoking Luckies and eating cured meats, while you painstakingly feed rope through your belay device at a rate of one arm’s length every ten minutes. You don’t have to claw your eyes out while your buddy bounce tests each piece of gear (spread a mere eighteen inches apart) on a C1- pitch of perfect nut placements (which is probably 5.11b). You see, when you’re alone, there’s no time for cigs or salami. You are always the one spending an absurd amount of time leading, then rappelling back down, then ascending the pitch again as you clean the gear, then hauling the bag (then going back down when it inevitably gets stuck), then reracking the seventy-three pounds of shit, stacking the ropes, and doing it all over again. Sounds like infinite bliss, right? Plus, there is no one within earshot to tell you that you suck at aid climbing (which pretty much everyone does).
Anyway, the point is, I have found multiday solo climbing to be the closest thing to a transcendental experience that I’ve ever had. It provides a Zen-like existence where one is forced to remain immersed in the task at hand for hours on end, constantly moving along a completely self-centered wavelength, making slow and steady progress that is often demoralizing to measure. The solitude and the prolonged exposure have an uncanny effect on the mind. The nights are long and provide ample time for personal reflection, often tapping into the far reaches of the subconscious that harbor our most sincere ideals, goals, and plans for the future. All it takes is lying in a portaledge to make one keenly aware of gravity’s pull into the inky abyss below, as you contemplate the metal studs and nylon that hold your existence in place. Life is fragile, and it shouldn’t be squandered. Sometimes it takes climbing to remind me of that.
As much as I value the experiences I’ve had in the past, it’s never easy for me to commit to another solo climb. The stars need to align, so to speak. Enough time has to pass for me to forget about the measure of suffering I’m about to sign up for. I have to convince myself that it is a worthwhile objective and, more importantly, that I’m truly psyched to see it through. I mean, at the end of the day, who really wants to aid climb anything? Then it’s the planning, the logistics, the Rubbermaid bins full of random gear. Usually I’ll end up soloing a wall when I feel the pressures of everyday life putting the squeeze on me or if I’m losing that sense of inspiration that climbing has always provided in my life. Whatever the reason ends up being, it’s safe to say that there is usually some sort of metaphorical dragon at the heart of the issue that needs to be taken care of.
In the fall of 2013, I began to realize, this time around, the dragon I needed to face was my own fear and mental weakness. At some point during the summer, I had become afraid of the exposure and potential consequences of rock climbing. I was having trouble leading pitches in the Black Canyon that I had led numerous times. I was absolutely gripped thinking about falling—on bolts, bomber cams, or even top-rope—what if my belayer didn’t catch me? I was nervous about being hit by rock fall, of rescuing an injured partner, of a dozen other morbid thoughts. In short, I was scared, and I didn’t really know why.
These feelings boiled over during a trip to Indian Creek that October. I didn’t want to lead any route that wasn’t well within my ability level. I didn’t even want to struggle on top-rope. At the anchor, I was petrified of being lowered, of not being in control. The wall was steep, and the exposure was getting to me again. What the hell was going on? Sitting amongst those sandstone blocks in the Utah desert, I contemplated the rest of my fall climbing season, or rather if there was going to be one. I had already been planning a trip to Yosemite in November, but nothing was concrete. Soloing a route on El Capitan was definitely on my bucket list, but I had never climbed a Grade VI alone, and I questioned if I was mentally ready. By the time my Tacoma’s tires hit pavement, I had decided that I needed to slay some dragons if I was ever going to get my mojo back.
I’ve often heard the phrase “the devil is in the details.” I’m not sure that I fully understand the reference, but I can say that successfully climbing El Cap is in the details; the rest is just suffering, and learning how to poop in a trash bag while squatting precariously on a hanging cot. The amount of time spent planning on the front end of a big wall climb can mean the difference between success and failure. I’ve learned this the hard way on more than one occasion. Not only is gear preparation paramount, but it is also important to be realistic about your time frame and your objective, and how many pitches you can get done each day without getting burned out, leaving wiggle room in your schedule so you don’t have to bail if you’re moving slower than expected.
I rolled into the Valley on Halloween with my haul bags packed, ready to step out of the truck and start shuttling loads to the base of The Captain. No Camp 4 scene, no yard sale of gear, no grocery shopping in Curry Village, and no booze-fueled costume parties to attend that evening. I was on a mission, and it had started nearly two days prior when I left Colorado. The climb I had selected was Lurking Fear (VI 5.7 C2), and although it was technically the easiest aid route on El Cap, I knew that easy was a relative term. The lower portion of the route was steep and sustained with few natural ledges, and the upper half provided unique challenges with difficult hauling on less than vertical pitches, culminating in hundreds of feet of fourth-class slabs to reach the summit.
I once had an instructor who used the phrase “humble confidence” to describe how we should approach situations in the search-and-rescue world. It’s a phrase that I’ve adopted over the years as a motto in life. To me, it means that you should have the confidence to face intimidating circumstances, but for god’s sake, be humble enough not to set yourself up for failure. I had climbed bigger routes on El Cap with partners, and I had aid soloed harder pitches than anything on Lurking Fear, but I had never tackled a two-thousand-plus foot rock climb alone. In the end, I needed to be honest with myself.
Vic Zeilman is a Climbing Ranger at the Black Canyon. He lives in Gunnison, Colorado, with his wife, Heather, and one-year-old son, Finn. He can usually be found on the North Rim, trying to tick off obscure desert towers in the Colorado Plateau, nerding out on climbing history, or planning a pilgrimage to the Eastern Sierra. His new guidebook—The Black. A Comprehensive Climbing Guide to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park—is available in select gear shops nationwide.
“The Black” by Vic Zeilman (via Kevin Daniels publishing)
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.